Rodney Griffin’s family has been waiting more than 30 years for him to come home. At the age of 21, he left Centralia for Vietnam. He’d be 55 now, but he’s never aged in the memory of his brothers. They still hope and dream for the return of a young man.
Rodney was drafted in 1969 and sent to boot camp at Fort Leonard Wood. Afterward, he came home and married a girl he had dated in high school. He didn’t know that a week later he would receive his orders to leave for Vietnam. His family didn’t know this would be the last time they would see him.
“I don’t think Rodney wanted to go, but he did his duty,” said Bill Griffin, his older brother. “He knew what he had to do, so he did it.”
Rodney is among nearly 93,000 Americans listed as missing from wars since World War I. The Vietnam War left 40 men from Missouri unaccounted for, and one of the most challenging things for the Griffin family is sustaining hope after so many years.
“Especially when the POWs were released, you get your hopes up that you might find him, then you’d just get knocked down again,” Bill Griffin said.
The letters that Rodney sent home to his mother revealed his distaste for the country. He described Vietnam as “a hell box” and hoped President Nixon “would make up his mind and end the war.” He also told his family to pray that no one else had to go to Vietnam.
After six months of active duty, each soldier was granted a two-week furlough. Rodney was looking forward to a trip to Hawaii with his wife. But just before his vacation, the Army needed volunteers for a special mission into Cambodia. The helicopter carrying Rodney and six others from the 125th Infantry was shot down in Cambodia on May 2, 1970. One man escaped, one was shot, and the others were captured, with each man taken in a different direction. Most of the men were taken to a POW camp, but two, including Rodney, were never seen again.
Within a week, Bill Griffin said that a couple of Army captains came to visit his parents. No one knew whether he was captured, dead or lost.
“At that time, I didn’t know what MIA was,” said Doris Griffin, Bill’s wife of 38 years. That changed as a generation grew up watching television images of POWs coming home. Doris Griffin said that as a result of the family’s vigilant attention to the war coverage, one of her daughter’s first words was “MIA.”
Rodney’s parents never gave up hope that he would return. They suffered a blow when, after three years of waiting, Rodney’s wife requested that he be declared dead, so she could move on with her life and eventually get remarried. The Army classified Rodney as unaccounted for and presumed dead.
“My parents never accepted that,” Bill Griffin said.
The brothers’ father died in 1993, and their mother died in 1996. They are buried in Mexico, Mo.
“It broke my mother’s heart,” said Darryl Griffin, Rodney’s younger brother. “I could see it took a toll on my parents.”
Bill Griffin is now the oldest living relative and still says that he has high hopes, but knows the reality. He inherited all of his brother’s medals and letters. He also wears a bracelet every day with his brother’s name and the date he went missing.
Darryl Griffin said he flies an American flag and the POW/MIA flag outside of every house he has ever owned.
“I’m not shy of answering any questions that people want to ask me about the flag or my brother,” Darryl Griffin said. “I’m very proud of him.”
And that brotherly love hasn’t faded over the years. They both retell family stories about Rodney as if they happened yesterday.
Just after Rodney’s 16th birthday, Bill and Doris drove over in their new red convertible. Rodney pleaded to take the new car for a spin. Bill and Doris laughed while remembering the sight of Rodney going for a joyride in their car, packed full of teenagers.
Both Darryl and Bill Griffin describe their brother as a funny guy. As a young man, he liked to dance and was in a band.
“We did a lot of things together,” Darryl Griffin said. “He was good to me, and I miss him.”
The Griffin family spent their summers and weekends in Mexico, Mo., and his brothers say everyone between Mexico and Centralia knew Rodney. One man even painted Sgt. Griffin’s name on the side of his truck, to remind people of their hometown hero.
Sgt. Rodney L. Griffin is honored on the Vietnam Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C., and a street is named for him in Centralia. But his name doesn’t appear with the other deceased veterans at the Boone County Courthouse. His brothers aren’t sure why.
Darryl Griffin stays involved with the families of POWs and MIAs, just like his mother did. He goes to family update meetings, most recently in St. Louis, to learn what the Army and other families are doing.
“A lot of families get together and support each other,” Darryl Griffin said. “I go to show that I’m still here and I want someone to tell me something about my brother ... I hope everybody finds out something about their loved one.”
Darryl Griffin has been persistent in his search for answers and won’t let the military forget about him. He recognizes though, that funds are limited, and it’s been difficult to work with some foreign governments.
Bill Griffin has tried to contact some of the people who were on the same mission as his brother, but has been mostly unsuccessful. He gets letters every few months from the Army, but is skeptical because of information that has been blacked out.
“They didn’t tell the family much,” Bill Griffin said. “I still don’t believe half the stuff they tell me, and they’re not telling us everything they know.”
“The hope is to figure out what happened to these men,” said Summer Allen, a retired Navy captain whose mission was to try to account for missing soldiers in Thailand. “We would identify bodies and at least bring some relief to the families.”
A few years ago, Bill and Darryl Griffin received letters from the Army asking for DNA samples to try to match with some remains that had been found. The brothers promptly sent their samples, but the remains turned out to be from another soldier. Bill Griffin said that was the closest he has come to knowing what happened to his brother, and it was another disappointing blow when the results didn’t match.
Bill and Darryl Griffin agree that if their brother’s body is found, they would bring him back to Mexico to be buried next to his parents.
Until that day, they wait, remember and hope.